Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Fellowes is a unique talent able to actually inhabit a world long past. Perhaps the motivations and language of people are not much changed from one or two hundred years ago, but habits have certainly changed. Fellowes navigates that earlier world of societal mores and constraints so beautifully, I would have loved to see him in action then.

In his new serialized novel called Belgravia, the illegitimate son of an unmarried daughter is arranged to grow up under the tutelage of a pastor. The boy grows up clever, handsome, and with all the right attitudes, having expected no advantages. When it is discovered he is not illegitimate after all, but is related to a wealthy and illustrious London family, everyone wants to align their futures with his.

The Duchess of Richmond holds a ball in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo to which Anne Trenchard, her husband James, and her daughter Sophia are invited. The Trenchards are of the merchant class, suppliers of Wellington’s army, so it is Sophia who has secured the invitation through the attentions of The Duchess’s nephew, Viscount Bellasis. Sophia had caught his eye, secretly wed him, and conceived a child.
--from "Duchess of Richmond's Ball" Wiki, Henry O'Neil (1868) Before Waterloo

I can say little more about the convoluted storyline without compromising readers’ surprise, so will just say that Fellowes is particularly good in this novel with the thoughts of the two grandmothers to the ill-begotten boy, once thought a bastard. Anne Trenchard is beautifully drawn as a woman interested little in the trappings of society but caught in its web nonetheless. The other grandmother, Lady Caroline Brockenhurst, is delightfully acerbic and yet entirely sympathetic to readers, having lost her only heir right at his moment of greatest promise. She faces the unhappy prospect of leaving her title and wealth to an undeserving nephew whom she disdains.

I listened to this book on audio and was thrilled with the narration by Juliet Stevenson, who gave each character their own particular accents. Fellowes and Stevenson both managed to give the servants in the households their due, and as usual with Fellowes’ oeuvre, there was an authentic richness to their experiences, motivations, and manner of speaking.

The aspect of this novel that gave it some cache was the serial manner in which it was delivered to readers. Once a week subscribers found an episode added to their inbox. It was good that Fellowes tried this manner of publishing again, but I found it frustrating that I could not hear the story in one go or over several consecutive days. After all, habits have developed so that we now enjoy a TV series in a glut of binge-watching. However, I was thrilled to find a new section loaded onto my device each week, and listened to it eagerly when it arrived.

Fellowes used his own delivery vehicle for this book, offering readers a Belgravia app which included many extras, like maps (with links to photos) which show the properties developed in the early 1800s by Master Builder Thomas Cubitt with the help of James Trenchard, as well as closeups of the paintings that inspired Fellowes. A link to a short explanatory youTube video shows the grand central green marble staircase which features in The Brockenhurst House in Belgravia Square. The app allows readers to read or listen by episode. I found it worked well for me on an iPad and it can be enjoyed more than once if one is so inclined.

There is no one quite like Fellowes at work today, and his ability to read and write characters is unique. His novels tend toward gorgeous confections where outcomes seem destined to give the good and the evil their cosmic due. Since this is often not the way things work out in the real world, we can look forward to a fairytale outcome. There is a place for novels that involve us but do not agonize us. I look forward to whatever he wants to dish out.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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